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December 20, 2021

ESG in clinical trials: what healthcare needs to know

AI is main investment target, while 3D printing remains a largely untapped area.

Rather than just a buzzword, the environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework that defines and manages sustainability risks is very much a pharma and healthcare concern that shows no sign of abatement.

In fact, the percent of sentences which mentions ESG in the filings of healthcare companies rose from 1.4% in 2016 to 2.5% in 2021, according to GlobalData. The fastest growth in ESG mentions was for companies in the surgical and hospital equipment sector, which saw an average annual growth in mentions of 30%.

For context, reference to ESG among nonhealthcare companies only increased at an average yearly rate of 11% over the same period. Nevertheless, despite this growth, talk of ESG in healthcare companies in filings is still less common compared with companies in other sectors.

AI as prime investment target

One trend affecting ESG performance in the clinical trials space is artificial intelligence (AI). AI was flagged as the main investment target in the healthcare sector over the next two years, according to GlobalData’s Digital Transformation and Emerging Technology in the Healthcare Industry 2021 survey.

AI has the potential to deliver significant productivity improvements and drive efficiencies across the pharma value chain, says Kitty Whitney, director of Thematic Analysis, Pharma, at GlobalData. This includes drug discovery and repurposing, clinical trial design and enrollment, manufacturing and supply chain, and sales and marketing, she added.

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AI is seen as a solution to many of pharma’s existing issues, such as rising drug development costs, lengthy R&D timelines, and dwindling pipelines. Such issues also include the need for more complex manufacturing and distribution requirements for biologics and cell and gene therapies.

According to GlobalData’s Smart Pharma 2021 survey, a higher proportion of respondents (23%) reported that their company currently uses AI in R&D compared to other parts of the pharma supply, such as sales and marketing (18%), manufacturing (15%), and supply chain (13%). Over the past 12 months or so, no doubt driven in part by the impact of Covid-19 on digital transformation, the use of AI in R&D has received significant attention.

3D printing unexploited

Meanwhile, 3D printing remains a largely untapped area for continued pharma investment. The main benefit of using 3D printing technology lies with the ability to produce small batches with carefully tailored dosages, shapes, sizes, and release characteristics.

In addition, 3D printing allows flavours to be incorporated into a pill without the need of a film coating, entirely masking the taste of chemical compounds, Whitney notes. For pharma companies, 3D printing can significantly reduce costs, waste, and environmental burden, as printers only deposit the exact number of raw materials required.

by Jennifer Smith. Graph by data journalist Andrew Hillman

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